Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Geometric shapes and emotion

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Brown triangle
Roundel of the Netherlands WW1

How does the viewing of different geometric shapes affect emotion?


Scientists have, for quite some time now, managed to establish correlations between various colours and different emotional reactions to their perception. Despite this, why then does it seem so odd to ask how the viewing of different shapes affects a human's emotions? How can something as simple as geometric properties, roundness and angularity, upside down or right way up, change and alter, through mere perception, one's emotional state? The relationship between both colour and emotion, and shapes and emotion, are aspects of the larger branch of Psychophysics, which is the study of perception, examining the relationships between observed stimuli and responses and the reasons for those relations. For shapes, there are theoretical underpinnings and empirical research regarding such a notion that are quite sound and interesting and will be explored in this chapter. The exploration of this topic of shapes naturally implicates psychological theory about how we perceive objects. This chapter will also review the literature and present the ways in which geometric shapes have been shown to affect emotion. Finally, the knowledge we now have on geometric properties and shapes will be transferred across to regions of learning and environmental psychology in order to show how it can help people improve their emotional lives.

How we perceive objects[edit]

Figure 1.The symbol of the Olympic games is perceived as interlocking circles, rather than a set of complex shapes, an example of the law of pragnanz

'How we perceive objects' is more aptly defined as the way in which we appraise and organise perceptual information from stimuli in the surrounding environment. The first theory and most basic form of perceptual analysis is of course looking at the individual components that make up an image. This is known as structuralism and was the foundation for a school of scholars that would go on to find the Gestalt school of psychology. Gestalt psychology encompasses a wide set of laws, beliefs and practices, yet at the heart of this school of thought lies the law of pragnanz, or law of good figure, which states that reality, or more accurately our perception of such, is reduced to its simplest form (Wagemans, Feldman, Gepshtein, Kimchi, Pomerantz, van der Helm & van Leeuwen, 2012).

This may seem like a simple enough law but according to the Gestaltist school of thought it also has some very interesting implications about our perception of objects and images alike. From this law of pragnanz it was derived that, in the environment, there are wholes, or Gestalts, and contrary to Structuralist thought, the behaviour of these Gestalts is not determined by that of their individual elements (Wagemans et al., 2012). In fact, the components are themselves determined by the intrinsic nature of the whole itself. This led to the popular maxim that has come to define Gestaltism; the whole is different than the sum of its parts (Wagemans, 2012).

How does this relate back to emotion? Well, it is believed that humans perceive emotional Gestalts in the process of facial attention (Rutherford & McIntosh, 2007). The features of the face, when expressing different emotions, seems to bear an overarching emotional content that is recognised quicker than neutral stimuli. Rutherford and McIntosh's (2007) research indicates that individuals with autism use component facial features, rather than the configuration of a set of features -the fundamental emotional Gestalt - in perceiving emotional facial expressions.

More or Different?

The phrase "The whole is different than the sum of its parts" has at times been confused with "The whole is more than the sum of its parts". Why is the latter innaccurate? Well, Koffka (1935) associates the word 'more' as an act of addition, or summing, and that this act, in turn, is meaningless. Whereas if we dichotomise the relationship between the part and the whole, we arrive at a meaningful expression of the uniqueness of the whole as a separate entity. It is this idea, that the whole itself possesses unique properties that cannot simply be derived from the understanding of its individual elements, that has characterised Gestalt Psychology.

Figure 2. Pareidolic concrete face

Seeing faces[edit]

Pareidolia is the perception of significant images or sounds in otherwise random stimuli (Hurley, 2011). Interestingly, research suggests that pareidolic illusions are not explained by affect or lack of perceptual clarity - the latter, also associated with attentional factors, seeming only to enhance the detail and intensity of a pareidolic experience (Fontenelle, 2008). A very common pareidolic illusion is to see human faces in this seemingly random environmental data, which is not surprising when one thinks about how much attention we as humans pay to the human visage and the importance of such attention in a social setting (Hart, Abresch & Einhauser, 2011). Indeed, there is a consensus among scholars that there is a natural and strong proclivity for humans to attend to facial data over other types of environmental information (Crouzet, Kirchner & Thorpe, 2010; Hart, Abresch & Einhauser, 2011). This is believed to stem from an adaption trait that essentially runs along the lines of 'better safe than sorry'. Essentially, humans had a better chance of adaption and survival if they picked up on faces because they represented possible sentient threats. The bigger the proclivity to spot faces - the more likely you were to spot them when they were actual there.

"The ‘facial template system’ (FTS), located in the mesial occipitotemporal visual association cortex (lingual and fusiform gyri, FG), may be the site for storage and recognition of facial memories" (Fontenelle, 2008)

Threat detection[edit]

It has been speculated that this tendency to see human faces is adaptive, and that identifying a face along with the emotional information associated with it developed as a survival technique (Fontenelle, 2008). Without acquiring this skill, or tendency, human posterity would have suffered greatly as the success of human interaction is rested upon the accurate and rapid comprehension of the intentions of those around you (Larson, Aronoff, Sarinopoulos & Zhu, 2009). Hansen and Hansen (1988) measured the time taken to identify a happy face in a crowd of angry faces, and an angry face in a crowd of happy faces. Time and time again participants were able to identify the angry face quicker than that of the happy face. This suggests that the mechanisms behind facial recognition are especially fine-tuned to identify threat.

Which Came First? Exploring the causality of facial recognition somewhat implicates a nature versus nurture dichotomy, yet with the advent of contemporary neurosciences the issue can be declared somewhat resolved. There have been suggestions that faces become special because we have so much experience in processing them from an early age (Sinha, Balas & Ostrovsky, 2007). This repeated exposure is then believed to produce strengthened neural mechanisms for detecting faces (Sinha, Balas & Ostrovsky, 2007). Although this may be somewhat true, this environmental explanation, however, is insufficient when we consider research that shows infants only minutes old pay more attention to face-like stimuli relative to other, equally as complicated stimuli (Fontenelle, 2008; Little, Jones & deBruine, 2011). As for nature, there is robust evidence, through various brain scanning techniques that have shown that faces activate distinct brain regions in both humans and monkeys, to suggest that faces are innately special, and hold a unique status when computed by the brain (Crouzet, Kirchner, & Thorpe, 2010; Freiwald, Tsao, & Livingstone, 2009).

Research on shapes and geometric properties[edit]

Scary triangles and pleasant circles[edit]

Based on the established research in this chapter, we know that our brain has a tendency to see faces and is constantly on the lookout for threats. In order for us to quickly realise danger where danger is present, a thorough and conscious evaluation of a situation simply isn't going to give us the evolutionary edge to survive (Larson, Aronoff & Steuer, 2012). In other words, in order to maximise how quickly we can react to threats, the processing of threat detection must be a deeply ingrained mechanism that can work from minimal stimulation (Larson, Aronoff & Steuer, 2012). Based on this hypothesis, research has found that simply geometric properties may be the elemental stimulus that activates this deeply ingrained mechanism (Larson, Aronoff, Steuer, 2012).

Bassili (1978) studied the facial geometric patterns of emotions by applying luminescent dots on participants faces and asked them to assume happy and angry faces. When the lights were turned off, it was observed that the burst of dots in the happy expression expanded outward into a rounded pattern, whereas the angry expression made the dots go downward and inward to form a V-shaped figure. This study helped form the basis of Larson, Aronoff, Sarinopoulos and Zhu's (2009) study on geometric shapes and the emotional reactions elicited by such. They found that a simple negative triangle, completely stripped of contextual and affective cues, and presented in a stand alone fashion, would recruit the amygdala and related neural circuitry significantly more than a normal triangle (Larson, Aronoff, Sarinopoulos & Zhu, 2009). This research compliments aforementioned theories and research on innate mechanisms that allow the rapid detection of threat using as little cognitive processing as possible.

As previously mentioned, and exemplified in the Bassili (1978) study, anger and threat facial expressions naturally shape into V-figures and happy emotions express more rounded and soft features (Larson, Aronoff, Sarinopoulos & Zhu, 2009). Much like the "scary triangles", the warm emotions elicited by circles are also theorised to have an evolutionary basis. This preference for roundness is believed to stem from the shape of a baby's face - and as such, rounded geometric features aid in the inducement of attachment and bonding (Larson, Aronoff & Steuer, 2012). It is easy to see why such a connection is made as much of a baby's facial features are curvilinear or round; a large head, round face, and large eyes and pupils. Indeed, Hildebrandt and Fitzgerald (1979) found significant correlations between the amount of preference shown by an adult to infants with prominent rounded features.

Shapes features in general[edit]

There is a substantial amount of literature pertaining to the preference of simple, rounded shapes over complex sharp and angular ones (Bar & Neta, 2006, 645; Larson, Aronoff & Steuer, 2012). Bar and Neta (2006) found that curved contours repeatedly led to the inducement of positive emotions, whereas acute changes in contours led to a negative bias. It was postulated that this negative bias for sharp angles occurred due to a feeling of threat (Bar & Neta, 2006). Although the study by Larson, Aronoff, Sarinopoulos and Zhu (2009) gives us good evidence and information on the underlying mechanisms of fear and how this relates back to negative triangles, and similar explanations of positive emotions and roundness are explained by Larson, Aronoff and Steuer (2012), a study by Lu, Suryanarayan, Adams, Li, Newman and Wang (2012) explores a variety of other shape features and the emotional content inherent to them within a simply dichotomy of roundness and angularity. Lu et al. (2012) constructed a dimensional representation of emotions along three axes; valence, arousal and dominance. Valence represents the positive or negative aspect of human emotion - happiness and sadness being common emotions along this axis, arousal is the physiological reactivity to stimuli, or level of excitation, and finally dominance represents the controlling nature of the emotion - anger being more controlling than fear, for example (Lu et al., 2012). The dimensional approach to emotion allows for the possible inducement of multiple emotions aroused by a single image (Lu et al., 2012). Contrary to a categorical approach, this is more in line with research in neuroscience suggesting an inter-correlated nature of emotional processing (Lindquist, Wager, Kober, Bliss-Moreau & Barrett, 2011). Table 1 shows which shape features were significant to which emotional responses. The key word here is significant - not positively or negatively correlated to. Therefore the precise relationship between the two is still somewhat unknown.

Table 1

Significant features of emotion

Emotion Shape features
Angry Circularity
Disgust Length of line segments
Fear Orientation of line segments and angle count
Sadness Fitness, mass of curves, circularity, and orientation of line segments
Awe Orientation of line segments
Excitement Orientation of line segments
Contentment Mass of lines, angle count, and orientation of line segments.

Note. Reprinted from "Shapes and the computability of emotions" by X. Lu, et al., 2012, Proceedings of the 20th ACM international conference on Multimedia, p. 9.

Environmental Psychology, aesthetics and emotion[edit]

"Ulrich (1984) makes a case for the dramatic effect of natural images and shapes on stress and health by an analysis of patients with either a view of trees outside their window, or a brown brick wall. Patients with the tree view had less post-operation complications and less complaints. This is, again, attributed to the psychoevolutionary development of man, where natural images, such as trees, have become ingrained into the human psyche and associated with restoration and safety" (Joye, 2007).

The previous research has focused on particular geometric properties and shapes, abstracted from the bigger picture, and the affect these can have on emotion. The field of Environmental Psychology is built upon the notion that humans, due to processes of evolution in a natural environment, are affectively related and reactive to specific natural elements and settings (Joye, 2007). Essentially, the assertion is that humans respond cognitively and affectively better to features that resemble those found in nature. Today, however, modern architecture and cities contain less actual nature or artistic references to natural form or to the structural organisation of preferred natural settings (Joye, 2007). Although this line of inquiry is less clear than previous research presented, and is more related to imagery than particular shapes, there are still some noteworthy observations that may contribute to well-being and emotional health through perception. A complete evaluation of this topic is beyond the scope of this chapter, but the fundamental idea behind the notion is sufficient in making a point for Environmental Psychology and how this relates back to shape and perception. Kaplan (1987) identified long ago that particular natural scenes or images varied substantially in the extent to which they are preferred over others by humans. Much like roundness and triangles in facial perception, whereby both elicited positive and negative emotion, respectively, the true is same for environmental stimuli (Joye, 2007).

Joye (2007) points out the importance of shape-affective relationships when we think about the environments we, as humans, are constructing around us and the cognitive and emotional implications of such. This discovery of the benefits of, and subsequent tendencies to prefer, natural stimuli are rather robust. Joye (2007) demurs at fact that this is not taken into consideration in contemporary architecture and urban settings design.

Emotions and learning[edit]

Figure 3.Shapes can affect learning outcomes through classroom resources

The aforementioned findings regarding shape and emotion are all well and good, but how can the application of these findings help people to live more effective emotional lives? Well, research suggests that different emotional states matter when learning is concerned. Positive emotions have been shown to foster learning as well as support problem solving and information processing, although too much arousal has been shown to also coincide with distraction (Plass, Heidig, Hayward, Homer & Um, 2014). Similarly, positive emotions have also been implicated in the improvement of recall in the short to mid term as well as acting as a recall cue in long term memory (Plass, Heidig, Hayward, Homer & Um, 2014). However, Oaksford, Morris, Grainger and Williams (1996) found evidence, congruent with resource allocation theory, that induced positive emotions, as well as negative emotions, impaired deductive reasoning because emotions used up cognitive resources. Plass et al. (2014), however, find that, whereas laboratory settings, under which much of the research in this area adopts, usually induce emotion before learning occurs, in a classroom setting the focal point of emotional inducement is during learning. Their study on multimedia learning aids within the classroom examined whether or not aesthetically pleasing visuals could firstly induce positive emotion, congruent with aforementioned research in this chapter, and subsequently if this positive emotion had a significant affect on learning outcomes. They found that round, face-like shapes presented throughout the teaching multimedia presentation alone could induce positive emotions, and that these positive emotions, in turn, resulted in higher comprehension, higher transfer knowledge, lowering of perceived difficulty, invested more mental effort and reported higher levels of motivation, satisfaction and attention toward the learning materials (Plass et al., 2014). Additionally, they found that the combination of warm colours and rounded features were the most conducive to positive emotional induction. They conclude that the carefully conceived presentation of particular stimuli, namely rounded geometric shapes, can have substantial consequences on learning outcomes, and teachers should take this into consideration when preparing learning materials (Plass et al., 2014).

An interesting area of future research would be to juxtapose the research by Rutherford and McIntosh (2007) and Plass et al. (2014). Rutherford and McIntosh (2007) found that individuals with autism process emotional facial information in an atypical fashion, unable to pick up on emotional Gestalts inherent in certain facial expressions, instead focusing on particular features of the face. This finding has implications on whether or not geometric shapes would positively induce emotions, ultimately resulting in better learning outcomes for students in all learning environments, as was found in the research conducted by Plass et al. (2014).


Emotions are ubiquitous. They permeate almost all aspects of life. This chapter has explored some of the ways in which geometric shapes and properties have been shown to affect emotion. Conceivably stemming from a psychoevolutionary basis, roundness and negative triangles unconsciously activate neural triggers associated with facial features and expressions that were, and are, adaptive to social life. This is why we observe such quick cognitive processing for negative triangles as it directly stimulates a fear response that has helped humankind survive throughout the ages. These shapes are all around us, and how we build up our world in accordance with good psychological knowledge of our surroundings can have profound implications for our cognitive emotional well-being. More specifically, shapes have a robust relationship to learning outcomes, and the utility of positive emotions and shapes should not be neglected in classroom settings.


1 Negative triangles have been shown to activate which part of the brain associated with threat?

Mesial occipitotemporal visual association cortex

2 Humans can identify happy faces quicker than angry faces.


3 Which of the following is true of learning:

When utilised correctly, viewing different shapes in classroom materials or other learning environments can bolster various learning outcomes through mood inducement
Positive mood inducement has always shown to lead to positive learning outcomes
Rounded features and warm colours inhibit positive mood inducement and reduce the likelihood of good learning outcomes

See also[edit]

Reference list[edit]

Bar, M. & Neta, M. (2006). Humans prefer curved visual objects. Psychological Science, 17, 645–648.

Bassili, J. N. (1978). Facial motion in the perception of faces and of emotional expression. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 4, 373–379.

Crouzet, S. M., Kirchner, H., & Thorpe, S. J. (2010). Fast saccades towards faces: Face detection in just 100ms. Journal of Vision, 10, 1 – 17.

Fontenelle, L. F. (2008). Pareidolias in obsessive-compulsive disorder: Neglected symptoms that may respond to serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Neurocase (Psychology Press), 14, 414-418. doi:10.1080/13554790802422138

Freiwald, W. A., Tsao, D. Y., & Livingstone, M. S. (2009). A face feature space in the macaque temporal lobe. Nature Neuroscience, 12, 1187-1196

Hansen, C. H., & Hansen, R. D. (1988). Finding the face in the crowd: An anger superiority effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 917–924.

Hart, B., Abresch, T., & Einhäuser, W. (2011). Faces in places: Humans and machines make similar face detection errors. Plos ONE, 6, 1-7. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025373

Hildebrandt, K. A., & Fitzgerald, H. E. (1979). Facial feature determinants of perceived infant attractiveness. Infant Behavior and Development, 2, 329–339.

Hurley, P. J. (2011). A concise introduction to logic. Boston, MA: Clark Baxter.

Joye, Y. (2007). Architectural lessons from Environmental Psychology: The case of biophilic architecture. Review of General Psychology, 11, 305-328.

Kaplan, S. (1987). Aesthetics, affect and cognition. Environment and Behavior, 19, 3–32.

Koffka, K. (1935). Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York, NY: Harcout Brace Jovanovich.

Larson, C. L., Aronoff, J., & Steuer, E. L. (2012). Simple geometric shapes are implicitly associated with affective value. Motivation and Emotion, 36, 404-413.

Larson, C. L., Aronoff, J., Sarinopoulos, I. C., & Zhu, D. (2009). Recognizing threat: A simple geometric shape activates neural circuitry for threat detection. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21, 1523-1535.

Little, A. C., Jones, B. C., & DeBruine, L. M. (2011). The many faces of research on face perception. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366, 1634 - 1637. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0386

Lindquist, K. A., Wager, T. D., Kober, H., Bliss-Moreau, E., & Barrett, L. F. (2011). The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 173, 121-202.

Lu, X., Suryanarayan, P., Adams, R. B., Li, J., Newman, M. G. & Wang, J. (2012). On shape and the computability of emotions. Proceedings of the 20th ACM international conference on Multimedia, 22-238. doi: 10.1145/2393347.2393384.

Mega, C., Ronconi, L., & De Beni, R. (2014). What makes a good student? How emotions, self regulated learning, and motivation contribute to academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106, 121-131.

Oaksford, M., Morris, F., Grainger, B., & Williams, J. G. (1996). Mood, reasoning, and central executive processes. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, And Cognition, 22, 476-492. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.22.2.476

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18, 315–341. doi:10.1007/s10648-006-9029-9

Plass, J. L., Heidig, S., Hayward, E. O., Homer, B. D., & Um, E. (2014). Emotional design in multimedia learning: Effects of shape and color on affect and learning. Learning and instruction, 29, 128-140.

Rutherford, M. D., & McIntosh, D. N. (2007). Rules versus prototype matching: Strategies of perception of emotional facial expressions in the austism spectrum. Journal of Autism Development Disorder, 37, 187–196.

Sinha, P., Balas, B., & Ostrovsky, Y. (2007). Discovering faces in infancy [Abstract]. Journal of Vision, 7, 569. doi:10.1167/7.9.569.

Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420–421.

Wagemans, J., Feldman, J., Gepshtein, S., Kimchi, R., Pomerantz, J. R., van der Helm, P. A., & van Leeuwen, C. (2012). A century of Gestalt psychology in visual perception: II. Conceptual and theoretical foundations. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 1218-1252. doi:10.1037/a0029334

Watson, D. G. , Blagrove, E., Evans, C., & Moore, L. (2012) Negative triangles: Simple geometric shapes convey emotional valence. Emotion, 12, 18-22.

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